Knowing Your Place Part 3

Davinia rested atop Orcus, hugging their large form as the kids worked on a meal. The boy was biting his tongue, deeply concentrated in making a crown of flowers to adorn the Grey Sheepherder’s hat; the girls had recovered their delicious stash from the well and were sharing hospitality with the two strange guests. Davinia kept caressing Orcus, their response swinging between tolerance and annoyance.

“I have so many things that I want to ask you.”

“I have so many things that I want to ask you.”

“You are the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.” Promethia turned their head slightly, looking deep into those impossibly black eyes. She felt again the skin, how heat follow beneath and bellow it, the malleable but still impossibly strong layers that isolated Orcus from the world.

Orcus tapped on her arm with a beard-tentacle, as if asking for her to stay her hands. She acceded. Orcus followed up with gentle taps upwards, reaching her cheek to share a quiet moment of understanding and forgiveness.

“I have so many things that I want to ask you.” Davinia lamented. “You must have seen and lived through so much.”

“This might be enough for now.” Sybil stepped in, bronzed annoyance. “Let’s get moving.”

“Feeling a bit jealous there, oracle?”

“You came here for a reason, remember?”

No merciful darkness for those burning bright. Davinia explained a very summary version of her investigation to Orcus, skipping ahead when they started to lose interest.

“Do you know any caves and tunnels beyond those you use? Specially those you have seen people around.”

Orcus heeded those words carefully, sprinting down a hill with haste. The four mortals followed at their own pace, finding themselves on the outskirts of the ghost town. Promethia immediately recognized the bricks of a fallen wall and the markings of foundation; something big had been here, some sort of warehouse or farm. Orcus moved what seemed to be a scaffold of dried leaves and twigs, revealing a hole leading deep underground; Promethia produced a flame.

“A cold cave.” She determined. “And I can see that the now-gone subterranean waters used to flow outside, captured between nature and building as they coursed according to their nature. This must have been an ingenious place when inhabited.”

Davinia bent over, noticing evidence that something big and heavy had been dragged across the floor and scattered pieces of broken ceramic. A few stains of olive oil - recent ones, very hard to scrub from stone. This was the bandits’ hideout.

She looked up and found the kids staring back at her, terrified. They tried to run away, screaming as Orcus cornered and shepherded them back to the Celestial Triumphant.

Flustered and tired, Promethia flew up, fluttering over them.

“You know who has been robbing merchants along the road.” Davinia accused. “I have been patient, but that can change if you lie to me.”

“It was our kin!” The boy once again spilled their secrets.

“We will not tell you where we are from.” The biggest girl smugly declared. “And then you can’t find them.”

Orcus heeded those words carefully, sprinting down a hill with haste. The four mortals followed at their own pace, finding themselves on the outskirts of the ghost town. Promethia immediately recognized the bricks of a fallen wall and the markings of foundation; something big had been here, some sort of warehouse or farm. Orcus moved what seemed to be a scaffold of dried leaves and twigs, revealing a hole leading deep underground; Promethia produced a flame.

“A cold cave.” She determined. “And I can see that the now-gone subterranean waters used to flow outside, captured between nature and building as they coursed according to their nature. This must have been an ingenious place when inhabited.”

Davinia bent over, noticing evidence that something big and heavy had been dragged across the floor and scattered pieces of broken ceramic. A few stains of olive oil - recent ones, very hard to scrub from stone. This was the bandits’ hideout.

She looked up and found the kids staring back at her, terrified. They tried to run away, screaming as Orcus cornered and shepherded them back to the Celestial Triumphant.

Flustered and tired, Promethia flew up, fluttering over them.

“You know who has been robbing merchants along the road.” Davinia accused. “I have been patient, but that can change if you lie to me.”

“It was our kin!” The boy once again spilled their secrets.

“We will not tell you where we are from.” The biggest girl smugly declared. “And then you can’t find them.”

“They have to be from Mola Cavona.” The Sybil informed Davinia.

“You are from Mola Cavona.”

“You are from Mola Cavona.”

“You are from Mola Cavona.” Promethia announced. Their fear turned into terror.

“Please don’t hurt my mom.” The youngest girl pleaded.

Davinia put two fingers between her nose and brow, closing her eyes in intense reflection. She had found the identity of these bandits, but it would be hard to prove it before the eyes of the law. The crime had been prevented and intent was always hard to argue - specially without having character previously established before the Forum. Of course, she could push through based on influence and connections alone; the very idea filled her with disgust. She held this Triumph, a prestigious position and was backed by the wealth of Italia; to yield privilege to bring even more ruin to a community already on the brink of collapse was predatory and inhuman, the very definition of betraying humanity and civism.

Well, did not Lidia try to guilt her into remaining in the shadows, pulling strings with her position and learning? Then she could do that to create prosperity from wrongs. Punishing these people would only drive Mola Cavona towards the same fate that had befallen neighboring Aqua Soterra; punishing some bandits would still force those despairing to turn into banditry, their ingenuity turned against their fellow men instead of improving the common lot.

She pushed the three children closer together and embraced them.

“Go back home, it will be dark soon. Do not worry your parents; in fact, tell them they have nothing to worry about.”

Once again alone, Orcus stared at Davinia, as if expecting her to share her thoughts.

“Things are as things are.” She smiled, the titan unable to confide on her their worries. “And I am who I am; someone that is unable to let things be as they are.”

*

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It was amazing how much a single week had transformed the Valerianum. Plants adorned the entrance to the residential area, the animal pens had been cleaned up, utensils of maltreatment absent, the latrines emptied and all other signs of squalor hidden from view.

Token efforts that only mattered because the propriety’s former overseer, Valerius Lutata, had found himself the target of a very serious legal process and a Vestalis was visiting the place at the invitation of Publius Valerius Poplicola. Not an unattractive or incapable young patrician man, he had to suffer the indignity of being frequently set aside in favor of more prestigious and military capable relatives - all because of a bad fall that left him limp and timid. The moment Davinia set eyes on him she knew the man had received this modicum of authority to be the scapegoat instead of the “proper” Valerii Poplicolae. Paterfamiliases are all the same.

“Here is hoping to that. Can I count with your support?”

“Here is hoping to that. Can I count with your support?”

“Salvé, master Valerius!” She melted into courtesy, showing empathy and commiserating alongside the man: neither of them enjoyed this situation and there was so much they would rather be doing. Even if Promethia had been the architect behind this encounter. “I am so sorry to learn about the disaster that has befallen your family. I am sure we can sort this mess and avoid a scandal - or worse yet, legal entanglements.”

She locked arms with him, offering support physically and with a charming smile. Valerius Poplicola dared to believe that this was not turning as bad as he expected; he was finally getting some respect as a peer - and from one of the most important persons in Rome!

“I hope that we can convince you we are doing our best to be good citizens and become part of the solution.” The man started, as he guided Arpineia around the Valerianum. “We were not aware of how Valerius Lutata mismanaged this propriety, nor how he treated folks under his care.”

“That is a good sentiment, but it is not enough.” Some gentleness lingered in her expression; charm had been executed and buried. It was time for accountability. “Honeyed words are not enough, not when - even if unaware - your family profited from the exploitation of human beings. These are the sparks that lead to Conflict of Orders, these are stones crushing Concordia.”

“I agree, Vestalis Arpineia.” The man swallowed, waving at the fresh face that the exploration wore. “I would like to show you all the changes that we are making to the Valerianum, all to prevent similar incidents.”

“Please, do not jest, master Valerius. To suggest this is even remotely enough is doubting seriousness of the accusations levied against your client.”

“I would never even dare to imply that! I just want to make sure this does not escape the attention of your reverend person.” Nice save.

“Extortion and trade of those enslaved to you are horrendous crimes. Just being associated with people accused of such abuses can be enough to stain the reputation of any patrician. At the very least, it can compromise elections for magistracies for years.”

“That is why our gens is doing everything they can do for the victims, so that there is not any doubt about our dedication to Rule of Law and Liberty.”

“Is that so?” Davinia’s eyes shone as her mouth smugly demanded more.

“Yes, we contacted all that suffered abuses at the hand of our nefarious client and compensated them.” Arpineia demanded more commitment with a judgmental stare. “Enough money for them to repay their debts, returning their freedom. Of course, that is the minimum we could do.”

“Yes, the minimum; it is a good start. These people have been working here for too long, if just let loose on Rome they might find themselves in servitude once again.”

“That is why we are accepting as workers anyone willing to stay.”

“Considering what many experienced here, it may be difficult to keep the site productive. And it would not look good if they were working alongside slaves.” She held the poor scion of Valerius Corvus closer. “Luckily for you, I found out that the people of nearby Mola Cavona are in need of honest patronage; they are clever and hard-working. You will more pleased with their collaboration.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea, now I understand why rumors you are inspired by Egeria.” The cornered patrician was trying to remain stoic; his eyes begged for mercy. When would this woman be satisfied? How costly would the support of the priestesses of Vesta be?

“It do not understand why your grandfather does not hold you in better regard.” It would be a poor Vestalis that would reveal the content of the wills they safeguarded; the implication of the unique insights inherent to their sacred duties was often enough and neatly avoided legal hurdles. “Perhaps that will change. After all, he will see how you addressed a very unfair and distasteful situation with such dignity.”

“Here is hoping to that. Can I count with your support?”

“You can count with more than that. I will make sure that visitors of the Forum and the announcements at the Temple of Saturn learn of the moral strength of gens Valeria and its very fertile branches.” She narrowed her eyes, going in for the throat. “Now that I say that aloud, I realize that is not enough. I know just how to put your name on the mouth of most Latins.”

“Please, Vestalis Arpineia, that would be marvelous.”

“Then let it be so.” They stopped in front of the slave residences. “If you will only have free workers, you will not need those. My College will renovate them into a popular school; plebeians from nearby communities will come and witness every single day how your family really treats their servants, returning home with constant tales about the respectful and just treatment they give their workers.”

He barely avoided cursing the Vestalis; Greeks had nothing on Italians bearing gifts.

*

The Second Class Vestalis could not believe in the miracle she was witnessing. For the third day in a row no backlog laid dead atop the desk of her head of department.

And more surprising of them all, there it was Vestalis Arpineia, sitting in front of said desk, books spread open as she worked in something that had not been presented to her by another. She stood there, quiet, taking in all about the - there was no other way to describe it - performance. She was singing beautifully, fingers moving up and down across passages, gestures enraptured by the rhythm of her voice. Her calligraphy was tight and yet free-form; stylus and pens danced instead of scratching, cried instead of painting. And her eyes, oh, her eyes - heart skipped a beat when she looked at her eyes. Baggy, twitchy, exhausted and wandering; sparking with intense intelligence and overflowing with hard-earned knowledge.

Now that was what a First Class Vestalis should look like. This was the Arpineia that had been the talk years ago, the one that made her change Colleges.

Davinia stopped, feeling herself observed. She turned and shared the most radiant smile.

“Oh good, you’re here! Come, I need you to do me a favor.” The junior approached, entranced. “You served Third Class at the Rusticarum et Naturae Collegium, correct? After all, you wrote a thesis on the breeding of hybrid equines as a viable alternative to oxen as work animals.”

She blinked. Arpineia refused to ever address her by her family name, to the point that she suspected it to be unworthy of the attention of her superior. And yet, she apparently knew her career in great detail.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Vestalis Arpineia inquired, a concerned eyebrow raising. “I still keep up with what people are doing there; I too started at the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources: it was one of the few that accepted equestrians.”

She did?

“I apologize, Vestalis Arpineia. My mind wandered off. Yes, I did. What can I do for you.”

“Don’t saddle it, keep those ideas coming and your mind kicking.” Her superior seemed pleased; she deposited three sealed letters on her hand. “See if you can contact some of your former colleges. I would do it myself but I have no idea where she is now; ask them to deliver these recommendations to Viviana.”

“Recommendations?” This was highly unorthodox; specially between heads of different Collegia. “If you pardon my boldness, would that be appropriate?”

“Talent and protocol do not always go together.” Davinia shrugged. “We both know how it is there; there are never enough of us. Viviana needs Vestalis with bright eyes, willing to perform field work and dirtying their hands. I say that if we are to fix that we have to look for students where we have not looked before.”

“But is it our place to step forward with a proposal?”

Davinia closed her mouth and closed her eyes. Inside of her, stolen fire burned.

“Many still believe it is not my place to be a First Class Vestalis.”

“Many still believe it is not my place to be a First Class Vestalis.”

“During my first years as priestess, many argued about me taking the vows; the gods would be offended because I was not a patrician girl. Many still believe it is not my place to be a First Class Vestalis. Even more whisper that I am no Closer to Egeria than they are.” Davinia confided. “I don’t know and I don’t want to know what my places is supposed to be. I will welcome the fallout of this and protect you and the rest of my people, but I will never apologize.”